Yale honors the “Queen of Software,” the late Grace Hopper, in renaming Calhoun College as Grace Hopper College. Hopper worked on the Harvard Mark I, and she was a programming language pioneer. She invented the first compiler, and she had a tremendous role in the development and standardization of the COmmon Business Oriented Language (COBOL). She also helped educate and inform generations of IT professionals and the general public about how computers work (and should work).

Congratulations, Admiral!

Gene Amdahl, the chief architect of the IBM System/360 (the original, direct lineal ancestor of today’s modern IBM z Systems) and former IBM Fellow, died on November 10. He was 92. If you care at all about computing, pause for a moment to reflect on the passing of (most probably) history’s greatest system architect.

Amdahl’s career at IBM lasted only a total of 13 1/2 years in two stints, but what a stellar career it was (and outside of IBM, too). He worked on the landmark IBM 704, 709, and Stretch computer systems, then, in his second stint with IBM, he helped transform computing forever with the System/360. IBM invested a reported $5 billion (1964 dollars) in the System/360 project, a breathtakingly vast R&D investment to back Amdahl’s architecture. Fortunately the computing architecture Amdahl defined is history’s most durable, and IBM has recouped its investment many times over. That architecture thrives today in incredibly evolved form as the IBM z System with no physical correspondence whatsoever to the System/360 but still with Amdahl’s original design principles at its core. The design foundation was so strong, so enduring, that it’s extremely common for code written in 1965 to be running on today’s latest IBM z13 machine, unmodified, right alongside (and interacting with) 64-bit Java code written ten minutes ago, for example.

Amdahl was named an IBM Fellow in 1965, IBM’s highest honor in its technical and engineering professions. He had a falling out with IBM in 1970 over plans for a supercomputer. (IBM management didn’t think Amdahl’s ideas would be profitable.) After Amdahl left in 1970, IBM embarked on the Future Systems project that, in hindsight at least, was overly ambitious. Parts of the FS project ended up being useful, but for the most part FS was a business investment failure. In contrast, Amdahl founded a company that bore his name that, beginning in 1975, grew to become one of IBM’s biggest competitors ever. Amdahl left his company in 1979, but Amdahl’s “plug-compatible” mainframes reached about 22% marketshare and were still reasonably competitive well into the 1990s when Fujitsu, Amdahl’s initial investor, bought out the company.

IBM bet heavily on several key technologies in the 1990s that were, even in hindsight, risky, expensive bets, including moving from bipolar to CMOS processors throughout the product line, bringing Linux to the IBM mainframe (and with full IBM support), and the development of 64-bit z/Architecture. (The first 64-bit mainframe, the IBM zSeries z900, started shipping in 2000 and was a big success, kicking off the new century’s “mainframe renaissance.”) The CMOS transition was particularly difficult since the first CMOS processors were slower than the older bipolar technology on single threaded tasks, and many workloads are sensitive to single thread performance and throughput. Amdahl (the company) and particularly Hitachi, the other plug-compatible mainframe manufacturer, enjoyed a few years of increased sales during this rocky transition period. However, the writing was on the wall. Amdahl and Hitachi were not able to make the big investments to continue improving their mainframe designs, and z/Architecture in particular sealed their fates. Innovation also accelerated in software, beyond the boundaries of the physical system design. Hitachi and Fujitsu still continue to deliver mainframe systems in their domestic Japanese market with MVS-like domestic Japanese operating systems, though even in Japan IBM’s marketshare has eclipsed them both due to powerful economic forces and the engineering challenges in high-end server development.

It takes a team of great engineers to develop great technology, and Amdahl had a lot of great engineers working with him. That said, by all accounts he was an amazing, inspiring engineer and system architect. Thanks, Gene.

Although U.S. President Obama and Cuban President Castro announced their agreement earlier this month to normalize diplomatic relations between their countries, there remain many unresolved disputes. One of the thornier issues is that Cuba nationalized the assets of numerous U.S. companies, and many of those companies registered their losses with the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission under U.S. law. Among them: IBM World Trade Corporation. Yes, that’s right: under U.S. law, the Cuban government owes IBM payment for the IBM mainframes and other IBM assets that the Cuban government nationalized on January 26, 1961.

To be specific, the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission determined that IBM is owed $6,449,434 as of January 26, 1961, plus 6% interest compounded annually. If my math is correct, that’s about $135 million in accrued interest to date. IBM’s claim is file number CU-2155. The bulk of that claim is related to “data processing rental machinery” in Cuba that was on lease and partially depreciated but neither paid for nor returned to IBM. (Most customers leased their mainframes and other machines from IBM at that time, and many still do.) IBM’s claim is by no means the largest, but it is among the top 40 largest corporate claims on file. It’s larger than GE’s claim, as an example.

According to Gordon R. Williamson’s memoirs, “IBM Cuba was a large and thriving operation.” Then something strange happened after the 1959 revolution. Starting in late 1959 and through 1960, Cuba’s new communist government nationalized all the Cuban branches of foreign companies except IBM Cuba. “The Castro government and most of the nationalized companies were users of IBM equipment and services and the governmental authorities were concerned about their technical ability to properly operate and service the IBM installations. It reached the point where IBM was actually embarrassed and concerned the IBM company was the only remaining privately owned foreign entity. On the surface it appeared that IBM had entered into some collaborative arrangement with the communists (even though this was certainly not the case).” It turned out that IBM Cuba outlasted even the U.S. Department of State. The U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Cuba on January 3, 1961, yet IBM hung on for a couple more weeks.

IBM Cuba’s main office was located at 171 Calle 23 in Vedado, Havana, Cuba. Calle 23, also known as “La Rampa,” is the main street in Vedado. As best I can tell that office building is now home to the Corporación Financiera Azucarera, S.A. (“ARCAZ”). It also appears that IBM shared the building with a couple other companies including Chrysler. IBM Cuba also had a small satellite office in Santiago de Cuba.

IBM’s FCSC claim substantiates that IBM Cuba had machines on lease in Cuba manufactured as late as 1954. (There may have been newer machines, but as far as I can tell the depreciation discussion in the claim file only lists equipment manufactured through 1954.) IBM introduced its Model B typewriters in 1954, and IBM Cuba certainly leased and/or sold many electric typewriters throughout the country. Some are probably still in service. It’s quite possible an IBM 650 (or several), the world’s first mass-produced computer, made it to Cuba. (All computers back then were “mainframes.”) Certainly the IBM 604 and IBM 407 would have been relatively common workhorses.

I would have to assume that most of that 1950s IBM equipment is now retired with the exception of some IBM electric typewriters and some IBM (now Simplex) time clocks, popular in schools and factories for signaling class periods and shift changes. The outstanding U.S. corporate claims, totaling billions of dollars, also endure.